The Other Side of the Stethoscope
days at DHMC before being released for cardiac rehabilitation. He admits in his lectures to students now that he was completely shaken during that time—his first experience being in a hospital "with nothing to do," as a patient rather than as a doctor.
Doctors are so accustomed to putting aside whatever is happening in their own lives to tend to the needs of their patients, says Bell, that they often fail to notice their own problems. Their sense of duty, a sort of stoicism, can get in the way of their personal health and well-being. But the experience gained by those who survive a life-threatening disease or injury, Bell is convinced, can make them better doctors.
"I used to pride myself on being very sensitive," he says. But since his own heart attack, he believes that he is even better at both teaching and taking care of patients. "I would have sworn I was already compassionate," Bell adds, "but it's so easy to say, 'I know what you're going through.' Now, I've been there."
Compassion can go a long way toward helping patients cope with their ailments. Technological wizardry is more highly rewarded in medicine, but talking to patients is undervalued relative to the good it does, Bell believes. "You have to maintain human contact with patients. It's therapeutic. I've always thought that . . . but now I can say it with assurance."
Since going to the edge of life and back himself, Bell believes that he now is the best doctor he's ever been. "I had all these skills," he says, "and now I have this other dimension."
Dr. Wendy Osterling, DC '95 & DMS '04
Wendy Osterling, a 2004 graduate of Dartmouth Medical School, advises aspiring doctors who share her disability to "be truthful and proud of your hearing loss on your applications." Now a third-year resident in pediatrics at the University of Utah Health Sciences
Osterling has developed skills that make up for her hearing loss. "I have had patients tell me that they feel like I really listen to them, since I have to look at their face to lip-read and [don't] hide in the charts like other doctors do."
Center, she plans to stay on there for subspecialty training in pediatric neurology.
Osterling, who has been deaf since birth, entered medical school after graduating from Dartmouth College in 1995 and then serving in the Peace Corps. She was one of two students in her DMS class with profound hearing loss.
Today, an interpreter follows Osterling through the hospital, helping her to participate in morning report and rounds and to answer phone calls and pages. During patient appointments, the interpreter positions herself in the exam room where Osterling will be able to both watch the interpreter signing and
lip-read the patient's parents at the same time.
"Having a sign-language interpreter often breaks the ice," Osterling says, "as patients and their parents are fascinated by the signing." When she meets patients for the first time, she tells them immediately that she is deaf and both lip-reads and has a sign interpreter. "I find this open introduction puts patients and their families at ease. They realize their doctor is not perfect either."
Her disability actually helps, she believes, since her own challenges add to her empathy for patients and their parents. "I can counsel them from my own life experiences," she says.
Osterling explains that her interpersonal and observational skills make up for her hearing loss. "I have had patients tell me that they feel like I really listen to them, since I have to look at their face to lip-read and [don't] hide in the charts like other doctors do."
Not everyone has supported her in her training, but she has not been deterred. "There are always a few insensitive jerks who make things more difficult," she notes, "and you just learn how to pick and choose your battles, and maneuver around the others. Most of my challenges have been with people who need a little more education to open their minds."
In a presentation she offers to deaf college students who are considering medicine, she advises them to focus on "Five Es" as the key to success: enthusiasm, education, expect (the unexpected), energy, and empathy. To succeed at getting into medical school, she says, students must be up-front about their needs and the accommodations they will require. When it gets rough or they doubt their abilities, they should follow their hearts and focus on their dreams. If all else fails, she advises them to explore their options and rights under the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.